Lihaaf [The Quilt]
O Ismat Chughtai
Translated from Urdu by M. Asaduddin
In the last issue of
Mehta’s Fire, we
briefly described the
generated by Ismat
Chugtai’s story Lihaaf
written in 1941. in this
issue we present an
English translation of
Lihaaf along with an
extract from her
p.29) which shows
how Ismat Apa
handled, in her own
inimitable style, the
heat generated by her
story. Not given to
playing martyr, she
won the day by sheer
guts and a charming
sense of humour— all
of which contributed
as much as her bold
writing to making her
a famous and
literary heroine very
early on in life.
I n winter when I put a quilt
over myself its shadows on
the wall seem to sway like an
elephant. That sets my mind
racing into the labyrinth of times
past. Memories come crowding in.
Sorry. I’m not going to regale
you with any romantic tale
about my own quilt. It’s hardly a
subject for romance. It seems to
me that the blanket, though
less comfortable, does not cast
shadows as terrifying as the quilt,
dancing on the wall.
I was then a small girl and
fought all day with my brothers
and their friends. Often I
wondered why the hell I was so
aggressive. At my age my other
sisters were busy drawing
admirers while I fought with any
boy or girl I ran into!
This was why when my mother
went to Agra she left me with an
adopted sister of hers for about a
week. She knew well that there
was no one in that house, not
even a mouse, with which I could
get into a fight. It was severe
punishment for me! So Amma left
me with Begum Jaan, the same
lady whose quilt is etched in my
memory like the scar left by a
blacksmith’s brand. Her poor
parents agreed to marry her off to
the Nawab who was of ‘ripe
years’ because he was very
virtuous. No one had ever seen a
nautch girl or prostitute in his
house. He had performed Haj and
helped several others to do it.
He, however, had a strange
hobby. Some people are crazy
enough to cultivate interests like
breeding pigeons and watching
cockfights. Nawab Saheb had
contempt for such disgusting
sports. He kept an open house for
students — young, fair and
slender-waisted boys whose
expenses were borne by him.
Having married Begum Jaan he
tucked her away in the house with
his other possessions and
promptly forgot her. The frail,
beautiful Begum wasted away in
One did not know when
Begum Jaan’s life began —
whether it was when she
committed the mistake of being
born or when she came to the
Nawab’s house as his bride,
climbed the four-poster bed and
started counting her days. Or was
it when she watched through the
drawing room door the increasing
number of firm-calved, supple-
waisted boys and delicacies
begin to come for them from the
kitchen! Begum Jaan would have
glimpses of them in their
perfumed, flimsy shirts and feel
as though she was being raked
over burning embers!
Or did it start when she gave
up on amulets, talismans, black
magic and other ways of retaining
the love of her straying husband?
She arranged for night long
reading of the scripture but in
vain. One cannot draw blood from
a stone. The Nawab didn’t budge
an inch. Begum Jaan was heart-
broken and turned to books. But
she didn’t get relief. Romantic
novels and sentimental verse
depressed her even more. She
began to pass sleepless nights
yearning for a love that had
She felt like throwing all her
clothes into the oven. One
dresses up to impress people.
Now, the Nawab didn’t have a
moment to spare. He was too
busy chasing the gossamer shirts,
nor did he allow her to go out.
Relatives, however, would come
for visits and would stay for
months while she remained a
prisoner in the house. These
relatives, free-loaders all, made
her blood boil. They helped
themselves to rich food and got
warm stuff made for themselves
while she stiffened with cold
despite the new cotton in her
quilt. As she tossed and turned,
her quilt made newer shapes on
the wall but none of them held
promise of life for her. Then why
must one live? ...such a life as
Begum Jaan was destined to live.
But then she started living and
lived her life to the full.
It was Rabbu who rescued her
from the fall.
Soon her thin body began to
fill out. Her cheeks began to glow
and she blossomed in beauty. It
was a special oil massage that
brought life back to the half-dead
Begum Jaan. Sorry, you won’t find
the recipe for this oil even in the
most exclusive magazines.
When I first saw Begum Jaan
she was around forty. She looked
a picture of grandeur, reclining on
the couch. Rabbu sat against her
back, massaging her waist. A
purple shawl covered her feet as
she sat in regal splendour, a
veritable Maharani. I was
fascinated by her looks and felt
like sitting by her for hours, just
adoring her. Her complexion was
marble white without a speck of
ruddiness. Her hair was black and
always bathed in oil. I had never
seen the parting of her hair
crooked, nor a single hair out of
place. Her eyes were black and
the elegantly-plucked eyebrows
seemed like two bows spreading
over the demure eyes. Her eyelids
were heavy and eyelashes dense.
However, the most fascinating
part of her face were her
lips — usually dyed in lipstick
and with a mere trace of down
on her upper lip. Long hair
covered her temples. Sometimes
her face seemed to change shape
under my gaze and looked
as though it were the face of a
Her skin was also white and
smooth and seemed as though
someone had stitched it tightly
over her body. When she
stretched her legs for the massage
I stole a glance at their sheen,
enraptured. She was very tall and
the ample flesh on her body made
her look stately and magnificent.
Her hands were large and smooth,
her waist exquisitely formed.
Rabbu used to massage her back
for hours together. It was as
though getting the massage was
one of the basic necessities of
life. Rather — more important than
Rabbu had no other
household duties. Perched on the
couch she was always massaging
some part of her body or the other.
At times I could hardly bear it —
the sight of Rabbu massaging or
rubbing at all hours. Speaking for
myself, if anyone were to touch
my body so often I would
certainly rot to death.
Even this daily massaging was
not enough. On the days she took
a bath, she would massage the
Begum’s body with a variety of
oils and pastes for two hours. And
she would massage with such
vigour that even imagining it
made me sick. The doors would
be closed, the braziers would be
lit and then the session began.
Usually Rabbu was the only
person allowed to remain inside
on such occasions. Other maids
handed over the necessary things
at the door, muttering
In fact — Begum Jaan was
afflicted with a persistent itch.
Despite using all the oils and
balms the itch remained
stubbornly there. Doctors and
hakims pronounced that nothing
was wrong, the skin was
unblemished. It could be an
infection under the skin. “These
doctors are crazy... There’s
nothing wrong with you. It’s just
the heat of the body,” Rabbu
would say, smiling while she gazed
at Begum Jaan dreamily.
Rabbu! She was as dark as
Begum Jaan was fair, as purple as
the other one was white. She
seemed to glow like heated iron.
Her face was scarred by small-
pox. She was short, stocky and
had a small paunch. Her hands
were small but agile, her large,
swollen lips were always wet. A
strange, sickening stench exuded
from her body. And her tiny, puffy
hands moved dexterously over
Begum Jaan’s body — now at her
waist, now at her hips, then
sliding down her thighs and
dashing to her ankles. Whenever
I sat by Begum Jaan my eyes
would remain glued to those
All through the year Begum
Jaan would wear Hyderbadi jaali
karga kurtas, white and billowing,
and brightly coloured pyjamas.
And even if it was warm and the
fan was on, she would cover
herself with a light shawl. She
loved winter. I, too, liked to be at
her house in that season. She
rarely moved out. Lying on the
carpet she would munch dry fruits
as Rabbu rubbed her back. The
other maids were jealous of
Rabbu. The witch! She ate, sat and
even slept with Begum Jaan!
Rabbu and Begum Jaan were the
subject of their gossip during
leisure hours. Someone would
mention their name and the whole
group would burst into loud
guffaws. What juicy stories they
made up about them! Begum Jaan
was oblivious to all this, cut off
as she was from the world outside.
Her existence was centred on
herself and her itch.
I have already mentioned that I
was very young at that time and was
in love with Begum Jaan. She, too,
was fond of me. When Amma
decided to go to Agra, she left me
with Begum Jaan for a week. She
knew that left alone in the house I
would fight with my brothers or
roam around. The arrangement
pleased both Begum Jaan and me.
After all she was Amma’s adopted
sister! Now the question was —
where would I sleep? In Begum
Jaan’s room, naturally. A small bed
was placed alongside hers. Till ten
or eleven at night we chatted and
played “Chance.” Then I went to
bed. Rabbu was still rubbing her
back as I fell asleep. “Ugly woman!”
I thought. I woke up at night and
was scared. It was pitch dark and
Begum Jaan’s quilt was shaking
vigorously as though an elephant
was struggling inside.
“Begum Jaan...,” I could barely
form the words out of fear. The
elephant stopped shaking and the
quilt came down.
“What’s it? Get back to sleep.”
Begum Jaan’s voice seemed to
come from somewhere.
“I’m scared,” I whimpered.
“Get back to sleep. What’s
there to be scared of? Recite the
“All right...” I began to recite
the prayer but each time I reached
ya lamu ma bain... I forgot the
lines though I knew the entire
ayat by heart.
“May I come to you, Begum
“No, child... Get back to sleep.”
Her tone was rather abrupt. Then
I heard two people whispering. Oh
God, who was this other person?
I was really afraid.
“Begum Jaan... I think there’s
a thief in the room.”
“Go to sleep, child... There’s
no thief,” this was Rabbu’s voice.
I drew the quilt over my face and
By morning I had totally
forgotten the terrifying scene
enacted at night. I have always been
superstitious — night fears, sleep-
walking and sleep-talking were daily
occurrences in my childhood.
Everyone used to say that I was
possessed by evil spirits. So the
incident slipped from my memory.
The quilt looked perfectly innocent
in the morning.
But the following night I woke
up again and heard Begum Jaan and
Rabbu arguing in a subdued tone. I
could not hear what they were
saying and what was the upshot of
the tiff but I heard Rabbu crying.
Then came the slurping sound of a
cat licking a plate... I was scared and
got back to sleep.
The next day Rabbu went to see
her son, an irascible young man.
Begum Jaan had done a lot to help
him out — bought him a shop, got
him a job in the village. But nothing
really pleased him. He stayed with
Nawab Saheb for some time, who
got him new clothes and other
gifts; but he ran away for no good
reason and never came back, even
to see Rabbu...
Rabbu had gone to a relative’s
house to see him. Begum Jaan was
reluctant to let her go but realised
that Rabbu was helpless. So she
didn’t prevent her from going.
* Verse from the Quran read to ward off evil.
All through the day Begum
Jaan was out of her element. Her
body ached at every joint, but she
couldn’t bear anyone’s touch.
She didn’t eat anything and kept
moping in the bed the whole day.
“Shall I rub your back, Begum
Jaan...?” I asked zestfully as I
shuffled the deck of cards. She
began to peer at me.
“Shall I, really?” I put away
the cards and began to rub her
back while Begum Jaan lay there
quietly. Rabbu was due to return
the next day... but she didn’t.
Begum Jaan grew more and more
irritable. She drank cup after cup
of tea and her head began to ache.
I again began rubbing her
back which was smooth as the
top of a table. I rubbed gently
and was happy to be of some
use to her.
“A little harder... open the
straps,” Begum Jaan said.
“Here... a little below the
shoulder... that’s right... Ah! what
pleasure...” She expressed her
satisfaction between sensuous
breaths. “A little further...,”
Begum Jaan instructed though her
hands could easily reach that
spot. But she wanted me to stroke
it. How proud I felt! “Here... oh,
oh, you’re tickling me... Ah!” She
smiled. I chatted away as I
continued to massage her.
“I'll send you to the market
tomorrow... What do you want?
...A doll that sleeps or wakes up
as you want?”
“No, Begum Jaan... I don’t
want dolls... Do you think I’m still
“So you’re an old woman
then,” she laughed. “If not a doll
I’ll get you a babua*... Dress it
up yourself. I’ll give you a lot of
“Okay,” I answered.
* A Male Doll.
“Here,” She would take my
hand and place it where it itched
and I, lost in the thought of the
babua , kept on scratching her
listlessly while she talked.
“Listen... you need some more
frocks. I’ll send for the tailor
tomorrow and ask him to make
new ones for you. Your mother
has left some dress material.”
“I don’t want that red
material... It looks so cheap,” I
was chattering, oblivious of
where my hands travelled. Begum
Jaan lay still... Oh God! 1 jerked
my hand away.
“Hey girl, watch where your
hands are... You hurt my ribs.”
Begum Jaan smiled mischievously.
I was embarrassed.
“Come here and lie down beside
me...” She made me lie down with
my head on her arm “How skinny
you are... your ribs are coming out.”
She began counting my ribs.
I tried to protest.
“Come on, I’m not going to eat
you up. How tight this sweater is!
And you don’t have a warm vest
on.” I felt very uncomfortable.
“How many ribs does one
have?” She changed the topic.
“Nine on one side, ten on the
other,” I blurted out my school
hygiene, rather incoherently.
“Take away your hand... Let’s
see... one, two, three...”
I wanted to run away, but she
held me tightly. I tried to wriggle
out and Begum Jaan began to
laugh loudly. To this day
whenever I am reminded of her
face at that moment I feel jittery.
Her eyelids had drooped, her
upper lip showed a black shadow
and tiny beads of sweat sparkled
on her lips and nose despite the
cold. Her hands were cold like ice
but clammy as though the skin
had been stripped off. She had put
away the shawl and in the fine
karga kurta her body shone like
a ball of dough. The heavy gold
buttons of the kurta were open
and swinging to one side.
It was evening and the room
was getting enveloped in
darkness . A strange fright
overwhelmed me. Begum Jaan’s
deep-set eyes focused on me and
I felt like crying. She was pressing
me as though I were a clay doll
and the odour of her warm body
made me almost throw up. But she
was like one possessed. I could
neither scream nor cry.
After some time she stopped
and lay back exhausted. She was
breathing heavily and her face
looked pale and dull. I thought
she was going to die and rushed
out of the room...
Thank God Rabbu returned
that night. Scared, I went to bed
rather early and pulled the quilt
over me. But sleep evaded me
Amma was taking so long to
return from Agra! I had got so
terrified of Begum Jaan that I
spent the whole day in the
company of maids. 1 felt too
nervous to step into her room.
What could I have said to anyone?
That I was afraid of Begum Jaan?
Begum Jaan who was so attached
That day Rabbu and Begum
Jaan had a tiff again. This did not
augur well for me because Begum
Jaan’s thoughts were immediately
directed towards me. She realised
that I was wandering outdoors in
the cold and might die of
pneumonia! “Child, do you want
to put me to shame in public? If
something should happen to you,
it’ll be a disaster.” She made me
sit beside her as she washed
her face and hands in the water
basin. Tea was set on a tripod next
“Make tea, please... and give me
a cup,” she said as she wiped her
face with a towel. “I’ll change in the
I took tea while she dressed.
During her body massage she sent
for me repeatedly. I went in, keeping
my face turned away and ran out
after doing the errand. When she
changed her dress I began to feel
jittery. Turning my face away from
her I sipped my tea.
My heart yearned in anguish
for Amma. This punishment was
much more severe than I deserved
for fighting with my brothers.
Amma always disliked my playing
with boys. Now tell me, are they
man-eaters that they would eat up
her darling? And who are the
boys? My own brothers and their
puny, little friends! She was a
believer in strict segregation for
women. And Begum Jaan here was
more terrifying than all the loafers
of the world. Left to myself, I
would have run out to the street —
even further away! But I was
helpless and had to stay there
much against my wish.
Begum Jaan had decked
herself up elaborately and
perfumed herself with the warm
scent of attars. Then she began
to shower me with affection. “I
want to go home,” was my answer
to all her suggestions. Then I
“There, there... come near me...
I’ll take you to the market today.
But I kept up the refrain of
going home. All the toys and
sweets of the world had no
interest for me.
“Your brothers will bash you
up, you witch,” She tapped me
affectionately on my cheek.
“Raw mangoes are sour to
taste. Begum Jaan,” hissed
Rabbu, burning with jealousy.
Then Begum Jaan had a fit. The
gold necklace she had offered me
moments ago flew into pieces.
The muslin net dupatta was torn
to shreds. And her hair-parting
which was never crooked was a
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” She screamed
between spasms. I ran out.
Begum Jaan regained her senses
after much fuss and ministrations.
When I peered into the room on
tiptoe, I saw Rabbu rubbing her
body, nestling against her waist.
“Take off your shoes,” Rabbu
said while stroking Begum Jaan’s
ribs. Mouse-like, I snuggled into
There was a peculiar noise
again. In the dark Begum Jaan’s
quilt was once again swaying like
an elephant. “Allah! Ah!...” I
moaned in a feeble voice. The
elephant inside the quilt heaved
up and then sat down. I was mute.
The elephant started to sway
again. I was scared stiff. However,
I had resolved to switch on the
light that night, come what may.
The elephant started fluttering
once again and it seemed as
though it was trying to squat.
There was sound of someone
smacking her lips, as though
savouring a tasty pickle. Now I
understood! Begum Jaan had not
eaten anything the whole day.
And Rabbu, the witch, was a
notorious glutton. She must be
polishing off some goodies.
Flaring my nostrils I scented the
air. There was only the smell of
attar, sandalwood and henna,
Once again the quilt started
swinging. 1 tried to lie down still
but the quilt began to assume
such grotesque shapes that I was
thoroughly shaken. It seemed as
though a large frog was inflating
itself noisily and was about to
leap on me.
“Aa... Ammi...” I whimpered
courageously. No one paid any
heed. The quilt crept into my
brain and began to grow larger.
I stretched my leg nervously to
the other side of the bed to
grope for the switch and turned
it on. The elephant somersaulted
inside the quilt which deflated
immediately. During the somer-
sault the corner of the quilt rose
by almost a foot...
Good God! I gasped and
plunged into my bed. □
On Account of Continuing Demand—
Yet another printing of
In Search of Answers I In Search of
Editors: Madhu Kish war and Ruth Vanita
Third Edition: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, 1996
This book provides a selection of the most bold and eloquent reports
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